Saturday, October 18, 2008

Artists in Crime by Ngaio Marsh

I thought this murder mystery was quite enjoyable. I liked seeing Alleyn fall in love (and seeing his mother, as well). The plot itself was a bit off--it felt like the detectives were doing a lot of clean up work and the guilty party was quite clearly indicated for most of the book, until a quick twist at the end. I thought Dame Marsh handled the twists and managed the artists fairly well, for the most part.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Mighty Queens of Freeville by Amy Dickinson

I thought that this memoir was quite funny and engaging at times, and that Ms. Dickinson managed to avoid one of her habits that most annoys me in her column (that is, scripting responses as a form of advice). I do think that there were moments when the author was trying to have it all. For example, in the prologue, as she described her ex-husband offering to help her mother before their marriage, she notes that the ex-husband (almost viciously denied a name in a book that names most of the other characters, including her current romantic interest) didn't get it, and complains about having to go outside, in the cold, with no warm clothes, to fix his shoddy job of cutting down a tree. I'm not sure why she had to go outside herself, and why she couldn't take a moment to find gloves and a coat. This ancedote sums up my complaints with the book. I did enjoy her style and I thought most of her stories were reasonably well selected.

The Story of Edward Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

I really enjoyed reading this book. I thought Mr. Wroblewski did a good job of adapting the Hamlet story to Wisconsin dog breeders. Although the matches to the play are pretty close, they certainly don't overshadow the story at hand. I thought that Almondine was absolutely luminous. I appreciated that Mr. Wroblewski did not tie up all the loose ends. This book was a long read, but well-worth the time.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

New Moon by Stephenie Meyer

Although I found Twilight oddly compelling, I liked its sequel less. I think this book continues a disturbing pattern in Bella and Edward's relationship; his behavior strikes me as abusive and controlling. Furthermore, although I fully support a woman's right to choose to stay at home, I feel like Bella dismisses all options that aren't related to Edward without much of a thought. She throws herself into motorcycle riding, only in reaction to the way Edward has treated her. Ms. Meyer's style hasn't noticeably improved either.

The Believers by Zoë Heller

I received this novel through Barnes and Noble's First Look ARC program. I enjoyed Ms. Heller's style; her writing was very easy for me to read. I liked the idea of the book, but I wonder whether it all comes together in the end. I appreciate Ms. Heller's general resistance to easy closing (people break up rather than getting together or getting pregnant), but I don't know that I know any of the characters quite well enough because each shares the spotlight with so many others. I'm sure my views will develop through the discussion program, and I plan on posting my final review from that on this post in about a month, but for now my evaluation of this novel is promising, but ultimately failing to cohere.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale

This book recounts a famous Victorian murder mystery that fueled detective fiction written by Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens. I think Summerscale has done a great job telling the story of the murder. I also appreciated her thoughts on the creation of the detective and the detective hero. I think she gets into a little bit of trouble as she tries too closely to merge the detective hero and Whicher into one overarching figure. She begins to use literary descriptions of detectives as "proof" for elements of Whicher's behavior and attitudes. Overall, though, I think this book is a smart piece of work.

Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis

I found this book a delightful satire of academia generally, and the British system of universities during the second half of the twentieth century particularly. Jim is a hoot; I particularly adore how he conspires with Christine to hide the damage to the bedsheets after he burns a hole smoking in bed. Overall, though, the book is classic humor, and wonderful satire, and well worth taking the time to read.

Puntos de Partida Workbook by Alice Arana

I found this workbook better than the textbook it accompanies. The exercises provided rigorous review of grammatical points, and the mi diario sections, among others, encouraged me to write prose of my own, which constituted an important part of learning the language for me.

Puntos de Partida by Marty Knorre

I disliked this textbook. Partially, the problem was that I am learning Spanish primarily to read the literature, and not to speak it necessarily, while the book was geared toward speaking skills and aural comprehension. Far more problematic, though, was its presentation of verbs: there is not an overview first, so it feels like one thing after another being thrown at you with no rhyme or reason. Generally, I wasn't pleased with the organization of each chapter, either. I would especially warn self-teachers away from this book.

The Alchemist by Paul Coehlo

I did not find this book particularly enjoyable. It might have been the translation, but I wasn't crazy about the style. Furthermore, I felt like the simple moral of the story was overdone and overwrought. Borges gets the same point across much more movingly in a short story. Also, I felt like the point of the story was a bit simple.

The Collected Stories of Amanda Cross by Amanda Cross

I thought that this collection was quite entertaining. Although short murder mysteries often do not succeed as well as their novel-length counterparts, I thought Cross admirably avoided this difficulty by writing about puzzles and mysteries that were not necessarily murders. Some of the stories Cross included (including the one about the English professor accused of murdering one of her students, the one of the foundling baby, and the one about the professor who went missing) were quite memorably and good, if a little heavy-handed in their particular brand of feminism.

The James Joyce Murder by Amanda Cross

I found this mystery by Amanda Cross far more satisfying than her first attempt, In the Last Analysis. This story follows the house mystery format much more closely, and in addition, has a very strong James Joyce tie-in. (Not only is it about James Joyce's letters with his publisher, but the chapter headings match the titles of the Dubliners stories). I thought it advanced the Kate-Reed romance story line and told us a lot about Kate's character without taking away from the murder mystery plot. Highly entertaining.

In the Last Analysis by Amanda Cross

In this mystery, Kate Fansler sets out to prove that her psychologist friend did not murder a student of hers. While I think Cross captures her detective, and the friendship between her detective and the suspect and his wife quite well, I am a little hesitant about the ultimate solution; it is so complicated, I'm not sure it's fair to readers, and that it could be guessed. Still, I'm delighted to have found another quite readable mystery writer.

Brisingr by Christopher Paolini

This book was as I expected, no worse and no better. Paolini's prose is somewhat awkward, but serviceable. His plotting and characters seem very formulaic, and while I admire his linguistic attempts, he's no philologist (and no Tolkien, for that matter). The real flaw of this book (which felt in some ways like a holding pattern, deferring the real trial until the final book) was the plodding plot; Paolini has a poor sense of timing and let many questions simmer and develop for far too long. Still, since I am now this far in, I will probably read the fourth book when it comes out.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Reconstructing Womanhood by Hazel Carby

In this work, Hazel Carby challenges the dominant narratives of African-American cultural history and its pattern of black women writers in order to include urban confrontations in fiction. Carby starts by laying the groundwork and acknowledging the black, feminist scholars and critics who have preceded her. Then she re-examines antebellum racial and gender relationships, especially questioning the ideal of womanhood. She reads both Northern and Southern antebellum texts, including Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl before moving on to such authors as Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (Iola Leroy), Anna Julia Cooper, Ida B. Wells, and Pauline Hopkins. Utimately Carby identifies a renaissance in African American literature during the turn of the twentieth century, and complicates the tradition of African American fiction to consider its previously neglected engagement with the struggles of the urban working class. I thought this book was very neatly assembled, and its readings of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (the part I was looking to read, and the one I am most qualified to assess) were quite sharp.

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

I could not put this book down. Ms. Shaffer and Ms. Barrows have written an epistolary novel, and handled the form so well, that this book really shows the best of what such a novel can be. Furthermore, the characters are memorable, and, for the most part, loveable. They meet loss and oppression with grace, generosity, kindness, and a willingness to love and trust. They also love books and reading (which makes me love them all the more). Finally, although this book deals with tragic circumstances, it ends up affirming the power of the human spirit, and the value of kindness and love. I am so pleased to have read such an uplifting and wonderful book.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

The Return of Ulysses: A Cultural History of Homer's Odyssey by Edith Hall

I was disappointed by this book. In attempting to give a cohesive cultural history of the Odyssey, Edith Hall makes two missteps. First, she gives in to the temptation to read everything that matches some element of the Odyssey as consciously indebted to that work (although not as badly as she could have), and second, she has chosen a topic that is entirely too broad. She would be better advised to find some way to limit her topic and write a more specific book. All that is to say, I find her readings interesting, and they make sense, but they ultimately do not work for me.

Transamerican Literary Relations and the Nineteenth-Century Public Sphere by Anna Brickhouse

In this book, Anna Brickhouse re-reads 19th-century American literature as being in significant dialogue with the rest of the hemisphere, even as politically, the US remains in a disengaged and antagonistic stance towards its neighbors. Brickhouse does an excellent job recuperating several texts and authors (including an American poet), and makes some intelligent guesses at identifying an anonymous author. I appreciated both the book's scope and its methodology. I was particularly intrigued by the chapter that sets The Last of the Mohicans against the anonymous Jicoténcal, and I am impressed by her incorporation of French and Spanish sources.

Building the Devil's Empire: French Colonial New Orleans by Shannon Lee Dawdy

In this book, Shannon Lee Dawdy describes the French colonial experience in New Orleans in the context of what she calls rogue colonialism: colonials working primarily in their own interests to create a society and economy which the sponsoring powers do not intend to create. This theory seems to come out of what I take to be the major scholarly innovation of the book: a more full account of the large extent to which smuggling shaped New Orleans during these years, and smuggling's influence on the New Orleanians' rebellion against the Spanish governor who seemed likely to crack down on smuggling. Dawdy starts by surveying the written records that describe New Orleans during this period; she contends their use of "disordered" as a description of the city constitutions a tacit invitation to smugglers. She also spends time talking about the design of the city and the class and racial make-up of its inhabitants. Dawdy has arranged her book very well; each chapter is focused and well-researched (I'm particularly impressed by the range of sources she musters), but they all contribute convincingly to her overall argument.

Pictures from Another Time by Kara Walker et al.

This book contains excellent (insofar as is possible) reproductions of Kara Walker's life-sized installations of silhouettes, and several essays and an interview with Walker contextualizing the artwork. This work is both incredibly skilled and incredibly disturbing. Walker turns convention and remembered history on their sides in order to demonstrate some of the horrors in the American sub-conscious. I think the artwork is important, and that the essays open several avenues of interpretation toward piecing together a tentative understanding of this art.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Other Souths: Diversity and Difference in the US South, Reconstruction to Present, edited by Pippa Holloway

I enjoyed this collection of historical essays about the South. As the subtitle implies, each essay addresses some aspect of history in the US South from about 1877 to the present, and each essay shows the South as a place of diversity and difference rather than as a monolithic bloc, but at times the collection still felt incredibly disparate. I think that the essays on the origins of folk legend John Henry (which reclaims the experience of man beating machine in a larger sense), the desegregation of Atlanta, and the increase of the Hispanic population in the South may be particularly useful to me going forward. Also among the best were an essay about peddlers and traveling salesmen and an essay about the conviction of four white men who raped a black woman. I enjoyed an article on the Auburn football program in the 1920s.

I think the historical analysis in this book was for the most part quite good. I would have liked to have seen more theory applied, but overall, I am happy I read this collection, and I plan to return to some of the essays in the future, as I teach and write about the South.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Run by Ann Patchett

I read this book because I enjoyed Patchett's earlier Bel Canto. This novel starts off on a bit of a red herring; the reader learns about a statue that has been in Bernadette Doyle's family since they lived in Ireland, and although the book examines closely questions of family and inheritance, Bernadette fades off in a disappointing way. Most of the book's action happens in one day; this fact made the story a little cramped and improbable, but not intolerably so. The title plays nicely on both political and physical meanings of the word run. I would have liked more of Sullivan Doyle (the black sheep of the family)'s story, and more of Father Sullivan's relationship with his nephew Teddy. However, I felt the story came together nicely into a challenging but loving tale of a family coping with crisis.

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs

I recently re-read this book and was particularly struck by the way that Jacobs both appeals to and rejects the possibility of a female community across gender lines. It seems that this sisterhood is only possible as the potential sisters are farther and farther removed from slavery and the sites of her suffering (and Karen Sanchez-Eppler makes a good point about motherhood replacing chastity as the female virtue which Jacobs uses as a standard). I was also struck, this time, by her persistent inclusion of many stories and narratives into her own; even though she is never beaten or sent to work in the fields, she includes stories of horrific brutality directed against slaves. Finally, I was interested in the contests surrounded around writing--which allows Jacobs to compete with Dr. Flint in terms of her cunning.

Resisting History by Barbara Ladd

I think I could have found this book more helpful than I did. In some senses, Ladd seems to be trying to recuperate the way Faulkner writes women in As I Lay Dying and Zora Neale Hurston's Tell My Horse. Her concerns are gender, choice, agency, authorship, and the act of writing in As I Lay Dying, A Fable, The Golden Apples, and Tell My Horse. She contends that the presence of women and hybridities in these stories challenges the monolithic narrative of History and divides it into several different narratives. Her readings apply Walter Benjamin's Marxist analysis to these texts and attempts to include the study of space in addition to Benjamin's temporal approach. As this review may indicate, though, I had trouble following exactly what unified this study.

The Unimaginable Mathematics of Borges' Library of Babel by William Goldbloom Bloch

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. Professor Bloch uses a delightful tone, and I found his analysis quite relevant to the text at hand. The book is quite well-designed, presenting the story before anything else, and then giving a mathematical analysis of some of the figures in the story. I appreciated the care used to select the mathematical examples; for while some were easier to follow for me than others (I found the analysis of the structure of the library spatially a little difficult), he used the math to make very good points about the implications of the story. While Professor Bloch held back from giving a full reading of the story, I found his analysis quite useful in my own ways of thinking about the truly unimaginable size and nature of the library. This book should not scare off anyone because of its mathematics.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Love and Death in the American Novel by Leslie Fiedler

I read the first edition (published in 1960) of this book. Fiedler writes more casually than academics today: he neither uses extensive footnotes nor includes a bibliography, and at times his perspective on women seems a bit off to me. Still, this book is mammoth (both in size and reputation).

Fiedler starts by tracing the history of the seduction novel in England and elsewhere. He contends that love and death are two of the most salient themes of the American novel, and that in American literature, the Clarissa figure becomes split into a dark lady and an angelic, fair lady. He identifies James Fenimore Cooper's historical romances with those of Sir Walter Scott, and traces a gothic tradition that starts with Charles Brockden Brown, goes through the work of Poe, to a full-blown Faustian bargain, whether done by Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter, or in Moby Dick, or in Huckleberry Finn. Indeed, Fiedler identifies gothic as the most successful form in America. Fiedler also traces the male homosocial bond that crosses racial boundaries, and identifies this bond as extremely important (Huck-Jim, Ishmael-Queequeg, and Natty Bumpo-Chingachgook all provide examples). He also reads Faulkner (especially Absalom, Absalom!) and Pierre to great profit.

Friday, October 3, 2008

The Melodramatic Imagination by Peter Brooks

In this book, Peter Brooks investigates melodrama as an historical genre that grows, quite literally, out of musical dramas and pantomimes produced in France during the first half of the nineteenth century. He demonstrates that these productions dramatize what he calls the moral occult, or virtue for the sake of virtue. They supposed a Manchiean world view, with two extremes and no middle ground. I found his reading of these early French plays very convincing--he seems to have a strong sense of the genre and the time period. He claims that as nineteenth century drama moves away from the excess of the form, this struggle becomes better set off in the novel. He ends by reading two authors: Balzac and James. Both of these authors receive a general reading before Brooks gives a close reading of Pere Goriot and The Wings of the Dove in his successful demonstration of his theory that while Balzac's melodrama is external, James presents an internal melodrama of consciousness. Although this book does not deal with authors or even genres that particularly interest me, I would go back to this theory and use it if my interests develop in this direction.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

How Novels Think by Nancy Armstrong

This book combines intelligent work in theory and history with close readings of a number of novels to illustrate its central thesis, namely that the novel, as a form, makes the concept of the individual, as we understand it today, possible.

Armstrong contends that 18th century novels show how a bad subject chooses to join society and how the self-discipline necessary to do so actually increases freedom. Victorian novels use women to displace man's "savage" characteristics, and to maintain the illusion of the development of mankind in a linear, monogeneic fashion, although vampire and other gothic stories trouble this concept with the possibility of polygenity.

I found this book very smart, and helpful, although sometimes it was difficult for me to follow her arguments. I thought she did a good job of deploying close readings to support her claims.